Battlefield airlifter.

Making sense of AIR 8000 Phase 2.


Kym Bergmann / Canberra


There have been several recent developments in the effort to replace RAAF’s retired Caribou transport fleet, most notably the US decision to cancel their order for C-27J aircraft. The choice for Australia between Alenia’s C-27J – potentially to be acquired via the US Foreign Military Sales process – and Airbus Military’s C295 has been complicated by an unsolicited and unconfirmed bid from Raytheon Australia, also believed to be offering the C-27J.

The RAAF have been telegraphing their preference for the C-27J for some time, with the Chief of the Air Force, Air Marshal Geoff Brown, saying:

“‘The main consideration in a battlefield airlifter is “What is its prime job?” In this context, the prime job is to move Army around the battlefield. I think when we look at what sort of aeroplane we select, we have to make sure we can do that adequately. And that means being able to move Army vehicles, so I think the ability to carry something like a G-Wagon is one of those fundamental requirements.”

The Mercedes-Benz G-Wagon is Army’s Land Rover replacement vehicle and will provide the backbone of its light unprotected mobility capability for decades to come. Army is acquiring 2,146 of them in 4×4 and 6×6 configurations.

The reality is that the C-27J can carry a G-Wagon but the C295 cannot because of differences in internal shape. However, there is a bit more to it than might at first seem to be the case. G-Wagons can be carried by other assets such as C-130s or slung under Chinooks, so why has this become the determining requirement for AIR 8000 Phase 2? Additionally, the C-27J can certainly accommodate the 4×4 vehicle in its basic configuration but that will not be the case with the addition of external equipment, such as weapons, or specialized modules – though these could be removed.

The Caribous seemed to spend much of their operational lives delivering small quantities of cargo and personnel – very slowly – to remote locations in Australia and throughout the region. It appears that the replacement aircraft will have a different focus, though taxpayers will hope that this is not a case of the mission being altered to suit the preferred aircraft, because the C-27J will be more expensive to acquire and considerably more expensive to operate than the C295, largely by virtue of its more powerful and thirstier engines. A 10% – 20% purchase price advantage enjoyed by the C295 in international competitions translates to a $100 million – $200 million saving for the 10 aircraft sought by the RAAF.

Commonality with US platforms is often used as a justification for sourcing equipment via the FMS process and so the decision by the Pentagon to cancel the C-27J might be thought to have consequences for Australia. Defence says:

“On 13 February 2012 the US President delivered his proposed Budget for 2013 to Congress which included the FY 2013 Defense Budget request.

“The Defense Budget request includes a proposal to divest the United States of its C-27J fleet.

“A final decision and timetable to divest the C-27J fleet is not yet available.

“Defence advises that it will take some time for the US to approve the divestment proposal.

“Defence has analysed the implications and the possibility of US divestment during the development of the AIR 8000 Phase 2 project proposal. While any US divestment would negate the potential of Australia–US C-27J through-life-support cooperation, the continued operation of the US fleet is not fundamental to the project proposal.

“These matters among others continue to be assessed by Defence, including the relative merits of the C-27J Spartan and the Airbus Military C-295 aircraft.”

Defence also state that an FMS case is still possible, even in circumstances where the equipment is no longer part of the US inventory.

On the commercial side of the equation, Alenia has taken a hard line regarding those aircraft acquired by the US, stating publicly that the company will refuse to support them if they are sold to a third party. This would seem to rule out their sale to Australia, if that had ever been under contemplation. Instead the company prefers to sell new aircraft in cooperation with its US partner L-3. On March 1 the two companies released a statement saying:

“L-3 Communications and and Alenia Aermacchi, a Finmeccanica company,
announced today that the companies are committed to meeting the needs of the Commonwealth of Australia with the C-27J Spartan, the world’s most capable, battle-tested medium airlifter.

“The two companies offer a Battlefield Airlifter (BFA) solution that will complement Australia’s tactical airlift fleet with operating efficiency and durability that keeps the aircraft viable for decades.

“The C-27J allows the Commonwealth of Australia to perform its Battlefield Airlift missions with maximum interoperability with its existing fleet and its international partners,” said John McNellis, Corporate Senior Vice President and President of L-3 Integrated Systems Group.”

And later in the release:

“The capability that the C-27J can provide for the Commonwealth is well suited to its operational requirements,” said Giuseppe Giordo, Chief Executive Officer of Alenia Aermacchi and Head of Finmeccanica’s Aeronautics Sector.
“Beyond delivering the capability, we are committed to a long term and value added relationship with the Commonwealth that will enable them to operate and
maintain the capability autonomously throughout its service life.”

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